Another passel of short fiction - a few spoilers are involved with the older works (they're from the early 1950s).
I wear my heart on my sleeve when it comes to KJ Parker. With the exception of a few "merely" great works, Parker has been consistently producing some of the best fantasy fiction of the past decade. The highlights were the Engineer series (which I still hold to be the finest fantasy trilogy) and the astounding "A Small Price to Pay for Birdsong". In fact, if it weren't for the latter, Parker's "Amor Vincit Omnia" would be the author's finest short work.
"Amor Vincit Omnia" (way back in early 2010) was Parker's first foray into proper magical fantasy, but, in the author's trademark style, the supernatural is treated with the same mechanical precision that "Birdsong" treats music or The Folding Knife discusses economics.
That precision - and the drive for systemisation - is the core of the story. The hero, Framea, is a student at the magical University, the Studium. His role in "Amor Vincit Omnia" is to track down an unauthorized magic user. The renegade has started spontaneously using magic (flying in the face of all the hard-working academics) and, more critically, has evidenced a form of magic that was previously thought impossible. (The renegade has also killed a lot of people, but that's far less important to the professors of the Studium).
Framea spends the story worrying over his task. If the renegade truly has mastered this impossible magic (called "Lorica"), the world as he knows it will be over. His mission is of utmost importance and almost (but not quite) drowns out the young Framea's first experiences of the world outside the shelter of the Studium. He's even been tasked to (cough) engage with a (nudge) woman as part of his preparations ("it was really just a blend of several different strains of acute embarrassment", he concludes). He's comfortable balancing the twenty-dimensional theories of magic, but Framea is out of his league when it comes to drinking beer or chatting to a young lady.
Still, this isn't the humorous tale of a bookworm saving the world. Framea is awash in Parker's trademark ambiguity: he's tasked with doing a series of very bad things for very good reasons. Like the rest of Parker's first-class works, the story ends with more questions than answers. The author judges nothing and leaves everything to the reader to decide.
If Parker refuses to cast judgement in his/her story, Stephen Arr more than makes up for it in his. "Chain of Command" was first published in Galaxy in 1954, and, despite its comic trappings, it is a fairly venomous morality play.
The story features George, a mouse with the dubious fortune of making his home inside a nuclear power plant. A janitor keeps placing a trap outside the front door of his hole. George and his children are far too intelligent to fall for it, but George's wife, Clara, is still nervous - she insists that George do something about it. Poor hen-pecked George is forced to approach the janitor.
The janitor is unable to move the trap. The two chat (yes, George is still a mouse) and, despite the janitor's empathy, he's got standing orders. The best he can do is refer George up the chain of command... and that's how the story goes. George pleads with the Head of Security, the Administrative Officer, the FBI and the military. Along the way he's accused of being a Communist spy and a terrorist menace - with disastrous results for everyone involved (including science fiction's most adorable apocalypse).
The story is goofily tongue in cheek, but Mr. Arr's overarching point comes hammering home with all the subtlety of a tractor pull. The bureaucratic process suffers the most abuse. Not only for making poor George crawl his way up the pecking order like the proverbial fisherman, but also for never taking the moment to appreciate the talking mouse. Generals, administrators, guards and janitors are so wrapped up in their neurotic procedures that they try to fit this (mutant) miracle of nature into the existing handbook. Poor George. But, of more concern, if a talking mouse can't get the attention of an authority figure, what hope do the rest of us have?
William Morrison's "The Runaway" (1952) is another charming tale with a bleak final twist. The inconveniently-named Plato is a ten year old student away at school. He - in the grand tradition of ten year olds - hates it. Plato's not dumb (he's even built himself a little infra-red lamp for night-time reading), but he'd much rather be reading the latest Comets Carter adventure than learning about square roots and such. One day, in a flash of inspiration, Plato realizes that the whole school thing is wildly overrated. Why not skip out and become a space explorer?
Thus galvanized, young Plato heads into action with a series of cunning plans. Jim DiGriz has nothing on this enterprising child (in fact, at least one of Plato's tricks - buying the wrong train ticket - pops up in first chapter of The Stainless Steel Rat - it must've been a common tactic in the 1950's getaway). To Plato's credit, his runaway attempt works and comes very close to success.
The whole adventure is quite sweet - if punctuated by a weird undercurrent of hostility. Why is everyone so bizarrely diffident to the runaway child? His classmates, his schoolmaster - even the "friendly" stewardess on the train... Plato is always received politely but there's an odd distance involved. This, of course, serves to set up the "ah-HA!" twist in the final line (oh, 1950's science fiction magazines and your wacky payoffs). With apologies for the spoiler [SPOILER!], it seems that poor Plato is merely a lowly android. He can dream of space all he likes, but he'll never get a crack at it.
Even in the realm of Galaxy Magazine pseudo-science, this doesn't make any sense. Why does Plato eat? Sleep? Daydream? Why wouldn't he go into space - isn't that what robots are for? Why was he in school at the first place? All these questions are, of course, secondary... If anything, the total lack of logic underlines the story's role as a metaphor for racism. There's no sense involved. What makes "The Runaway" darker is the lack of judgement in the story's final line. Despite the reader's empathy with the clever and resourceful Plato, there's no indication of whether or not his captors are right. Clearly, as a ten year old (male, female or sentient robot), he's a little too young to be a space explorer. But Mr. Morrison declines to explain the anti-android prejudice. "The Runaway" could take place in a world where silicon components explode outside of Earth's atmosphere... or a setting in which Plato will grow up to become an automated sex slave. All the reader knows is that Plato will never live his dream.
"The Runaway" isn't exactly The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, but it is an excellent demonstration of how the traditionally naff twist ending can give an unforeseen level of depth to the entire story. Mr. Morrison's subtle treatment of Plato throughout the story only reinforces this. (Another, more modern, example is Mark Laidlaw's "The Boy Who Followed Lovecraft", although I think the Morrison is more subtle and less didactic.) Overall, "The Runaway" is a surprisingly heartbreaking story of invention and defeat.
"Amor Vincit Omnia" by K.J. Parker is available from Subterranean Press
"Chain of Command" by Stephen Arr can be found on Project Gutenberg
"Runaway" by William Morrison can also be found on Project Gutenberg